Representation – What it really means.

Larry M Bartels in a paper about political representation, Economic Inequality and Political Representation, 2005, makes some interesting statements about political representation. Bartels explains that, “a key characteristic of a democracy is the continued responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.” He then goes on to note that, But there are a variety of good reasons to believe that citizens are not considered as political equals by policy-makers in real political systems” In essence what Bartels is saying is that our political representatives do not represent the people that voted for them, nor do they see the voters as fundamental to their decision making.

Bartel goes on to point out some of the reasons why representation is not equal. Wealth for example is one factor. The wealthy are likely to have more contacts and more influence. If People who are educated, and thus able to articulate their needs, they are more likely to try and influence decision making processes as well. Those without wealth or without education are likely to have less influence and less ability to be able to express their needs to politicians. This means representation is not as equal as our politicians would have us believe.

The Government, in an effort to provide society with wider representation, often provides funding for marginal groups. These groups might be for Aboriginals, people from Non English Speaking Backgrounds and even ex-prisoners. In the Deaf area we have groups like Deaf Australia, Deafness Forum, Better Hearing, various Deaf Societies (Collectively the Australian Federation of Deaf Societies.) and Deaf Children Australia. Funding is given to these groups to represent the needs of the Deaf to the Government and some of them provide direct support to the deaf as well.

These groups are active. They develop submissions and submit them to the Government so the Government will consider the needs of the deaf for a variety of policy platforms. For example these organisations have submitted responses to the Government about where they see the deaf fitting in with the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Last year they responded to a variety of issues including the review of the DDA Education Standards and more recently the television stations application for exemption to DDA Complaints and further increases in captioning. They are responsive and active, which is a good thing. BUT!

But just how representative of us are they. Returning to Bartels paper let’s try and relate it to the deaf population. Deaf people fall within disability funding. It is well known that the disabled have high rates of unemployment and are generally not in high paying jobs. Consequently, following Bartels principals, this is a barrier on their ability to influence. Born Deaf people can have a number of challenges to achieve good education standards. Many can have literacy issues which impedes on their ability to obtain high education qualifications. Again this is a barrier to their influence. Parents who have deaf kids come from a variety of backgrounds, some wealthy, some not and some in the middle. Parents, especially of new born babies who are deaf, know very little about deafness and this lack of knowledge will impede on their ability to influence also. Who is one of the most influential parents of deaf children? None other than Dr Bruce Sheppard, former President of the Australian Medical Association and strong supporter of Dimity Dornan and the Hear and Say Centres. Rich, educated and of course INFLUENTAL!

Supposedly our deaf sector organisations are representative of the needs of DEAF people and PARENTS of deaf kids. But just how well are they really represented? Let’s look at Can Do For Kids Board in South Australia, a key organisation providing support to deaf kids in South Australia. On their Board, in 2008, they had 11 people. It’s an impressive Board of qualified people. The Board, in 2008, had a Professor of education, a lawyer from a major law firm, a Doctor of otolaryngology, an ophthalmic surgeon, another lawyer and CEO of another major law firm, an optometrist, another lawyer and the remaining people were all accountants. Admittedly one of the lawyers has a long association with deaf people … But clearly to get on and influence this Board you need stonking great qualifications and a fair bit of money. My question is – Where is the consumer and parental representation? One must remember that Townsend House, who auspice Can Do For Kids, also manage the SA Deaf Society, known as Deaf Can Do. Sure the Deaf community are listened to but how much control and influence do they really have on a Board that clearly has a medical and business focus? What real community influence is there?

Not all Boards are made up like the Can Do For Kids Board. Some are made up of a mix of consumers, parents and service providers. Deaf Australia is one of the few Boards around that is probably made up fully of consumers. Other organisations are a mixture of consumers, parents and service providers. But outside of the elected people on these Boards, just how much influence does the average consumer have on these organisations?

Last year, for example, Deafness Forum put out a response to the review of the DDA Education Standards. This was one of the more important reviews that occurred last year. They sent this document to members asking for feedback. The problem was that members only had three days to respond. There were other submissions including submissions to the Productivity Commission about the NDIS. What real input did consumers have to these documents? Of course these documents that form the submissions are aimed at influencing the Government’s policies but are they representative of deaf people or just those on the Board. A few – like myself – who are educated and able to understand the issues put forward will often find time to respond. Usually we get a thank you for our efforts but have no idea as to whether our feedback was used. Of course the papers they ask us to respond to are all written in academic speak aimed at influencing Governments. If you lack the education to understand these submission papers, then what do you do? Certainly in three days there is no way you can get help to have these documents translated. If you want to express your view in Auslan, what avenues are there to allow you to do so?

It is not easy for organisations to consult properly. They lack funding and resources to do this. Often their only recourse is to send what they produce to consumers and hope that they respond. The ones educated and experienced enough will respond. But the average Joe and Jane Blow will not and often cannot. The reality is that it is usually the people on the Board that have the influence and no one else. Our representative organisations, hand on heart, will claim that they have consulted widely. But is a three day deadline to respond really consulting? Clearly it isn’t.

Then of course there are times when consumers actually respond en-masse. Who can forget the Cinema Captioning Campaign. Nearly five hundred people submitted to the Australian Human Rights Commission saying throw out the Cinema’s application for exemption. The responses were there for all to see. What happened? Our major advocacy organisations, as one, ignored all the people that asked for the Cinema application to be thrown out and sent submissions to the AHRC saying that the Cinema application should be accepted. Just who were they representing – the public who fund them through their taxes? Or the people that sit on the Board? Are they really, truly representative of our views?

However, there are signs of improvement but still our representatives will go against clear messages that are being sent to them by deaf people. The recent exemption application by TV channels to increasing captioning is a prime example. There were 53 submissions from individuals and organisations responding to the TV stations application.. Nearly all the submissions were from individuals. ALL OF THE INDIVIDUALS said NO more exemptions. Yet Media Access Australia, who in 2009 actually congratulated and then endorsed the Big 4 Cinemas on their application to be exempt from DDA complaints, ignored the views of the very people they are supposed to represent. The Media Access Australia submission to the TV application to be exempt from further captioning increases is tedious to read. It went here, it went there and it went everywhere. Eventually it reached the conclusion that if the exemption application was not granted that captioning levels might actually fall. Even I, an educated person, could make no sense of their arguments. Yet again MAA showed that they have little regard for the people they claim to represent.

Deaf Australia, on the other hand, got it right. They clearly listened to their community. Their submission, in part read,

Deaf Australia is aware that the Deaf community, whom Deaf Australia represents, has become increasingly:

  •  exasperated with the slow increase in captioning content;
  • unhappy with the poor quality of some captioning, especially live captioning; and
  • resentful of the constant requests for exemptions from complaint and the denial of their right to complain, particularly about poor quality captioning.

In their application, the broadcasters have made the point that when the BSA is amended TV stations that comply with the BSA will be exempt from complaints under the Disability Discrimination ACT. However, it should be noted that they will not be exempt from complaints to ACMA under the BSA if they breach the BSA requirements. For consumers this is particularly important for captioning quality.

Deaf Australia’s view therefore is that while they have for some time served a useful purpose, the time for temporary exemptions from TV captioning complaints is over.  Government has made it clear what is required of the broadcasters, and broadcasters will not be exempt from complaints to ACMA when the BSA is amended. There is no purpose in further temporary exemptions under the DDA.

Deaf Australia therefore does not support the free to air TV stations application for a further temporary exemption.  

 And that is what representation is all about!


To read the responses to the TV stations application to exemption go to: